Every Major Championship has its own unique characteristics and identity. The French Open is wonderfully French. It is in the heart of Paris, and the energy of the magnificent city and country is palpable throughout the grounds of Roland Garros. While the facility might not be as prolific as its Grand Slam counterparts, what it lacks in size it makes up for in quality. The grounds are meticulously groomed and adorned with beautiful sculptures and statues. While the surroundings are as stylish as you’ll get in tennis, the competition on court is as rigorous and physical as you will find in the sport. The very essence of clay court tennis is process. There is very little instant gratification. Players need to be prepared to work physically, mentally, and tactically in order to be successful. They better be ready to grind. That is the essence of French Open, one of the toughest tests in tennis, but well worth the effort.
This year’s tournament comes with some fascinating story lines. Novak Djokovic had his heart ripped out of his chest last year by the audacious shot making of Stan Wawrinka. This year he is poised to complete the career Grand Slam and further establish himself as the alpha male in men’s tennis. With a win this fortnight, he will elevate his status to one of the all-time greats. However with that possibility also comes significant stress. How Novak manages the pressure of achieving something that means so much to him and has eluded him throughout his remarkable career will surely be one of the themes of not only the tennis world, but also the whole sporting world in the coming weeks.
Rafael Nadal is the greatest champion the French Open has ever experienced. He has hoisted the winner’s trophy a mind boggling 9 times. He has only lost twice, TWICE in ELEVEN years!!!! He is returning to top form with big wins in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Two tough defeats to Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic in Madrid and Rome would damper his spirits a bit, but there is no denying it will take a Herculean effort to beat Rafa in best out of five sets at Roland Garros.
Unfortunately one of the biggest headlines of the event took place before a ball was even hit, the withdrawal of Roger Federer. This ended a remarkable streak of 65 straight main draw Grand Slam appearances for Federer. To put that in perspective, the last time Roger failed to participate in the main draw of a Grand Slam was LAST CENTURY! The #1 song at the time was “Believe” by Cher. Any event without Roger Federer loses some luster, but father time is undefeated. He knows his best chances of winning big events come when he is healthy and well prepared. His two biggest goals this year are Wimbledon and the Olympics and they are both very much in play. Long live the King!
Andy Murray’s clay court success has added some nice drama to this year’s French Open. With his win in Rome, and successive semifinal appearances at the French Open, he is coming into the tournament with a lot of confidence. The key for Andy on all surfaces, but especially clay is how effective he is with knocking down his forehand and getting free points on his first serve. He moves so well, defends so effectively, and has an incredibly high tennis IQ. If he can manage his emotions, and that is a BIG if, he can contend for this year’s event.
I don’t mean it disrespectfully but I suppose it is revealing that I have yet to address the defending champion, Stan Wawrinka’s chances of repeating. It shouldn’t be a big surprise as Stan has gone under acknowledged and underappreciated throughout his career. His ball striking and brute force was remarkable last year. He is a first ballot Hall of Famer, but I don’t foresee him repeating last year’s efforts. However the prediction of heavy, cold, damp conditions will favor him as his ability to create power off of both sides and get free points on serve will be at a premium.
On the women’s side it starts and ends with Serena Williams. Her win in Rome, reestablished her as the prohibitive favorite. She looked sharp, engaged, and deeply motivate. She was fierce. If she stays healthy and plays close to her highest level she will once again be the French Open Champion. However there has been excellent parody on the WTA this year. Simona Halep was very impressive in winning Madrid. Garbine Mugaruza is a big time talent, and Madison Key’s run to the finals in Rome showed once again that when her power game is clicking she can beat almost anyone. Sloane Stephens has also had a great start to the year; winning 3 titles already, and with a favorable draw can make a deep run.
Some other men that I could foresee making runs her in Paris include, Jack Sock, Pablo Cuevas, and David Goffin. Jack Sock’s forehand is one of the biggest shots in men’s tennis. He is an underrated athlete. He is an absolute beast physically. He moves well on the clay and got to the 4rth rd here last year losing a tough four setter to Rafael Nadal. Pablo Cuevas is just ROUGH on the dirt. His movement on the clay is smooth and seamless. He has one of the best one-handed backhands in the game and possesses a NASTY kick serve. He understands the nuances of clay court tennis and he is already a French Open Champion, winning the Doubles in 2008. David Goffin is one of the most underrated players in Men’s tennis. He reached back-to-back semifinals in Indian Wells and Miami and the quarterfinals in Rome. He also recorded a rare 6-0 6-0 win against a TOP TEN player, Tomas Berdych in Rome. That takes serious game! He has an incredible backhand, is lightning quick, and is a going to make you work for every point.
These are just a few takes on this year’s French Open. The tournament has an excellent chance of being special, even historic. When the clay settles, I fully expect Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams to be hoisting trophies and celebrating in the City of Lights!